There has been a lot of talk about the banning and unbanning of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s performance of The Bible; The Complete Word Of God (abridged) in Newtownabbey; probably too much talk. So why does this blog talk more? Well, I would rather the talk had been about something else. Instead of many of being embarrassed, in the same way that we were when my home council of Ballymena banned the Electric Light Orchestra some twenty years ago, I would rather be talking about what Jesus is for rather than what he might be against! When people get in front of the Word of God, I as a Christian love that idea. More of it! It brings God into conversations. It allows God’s Spirit to become involved too. I remember as a teenage atheist, and pretty anti God, listening to Billy Connolly’s 16 minute comedy piece on The Crucifixion. At the time, I found it hilarious but even then I felt there were moments when it was more than close to the bone. However, it made Jesus real to me and put me in front of that cross. It was not Connolly’s intention to preach, it might even have been his intention to make fun of Christianity, but God cannot be mocked as the Scriptures tell us. Indeed in Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes about people preaching the Gospel for dubious reasons and claims that he doesn’t mind what the reasons are as long as it is preached.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company on the other hand are not about mocking or trying to be anti anything. As their name suggests they began as a way to honour, in an imaginative, humorous and popular way, the works of William Shakespeare. You didn’t find the literary world campaigning to get them banned. It was a strategic way to bring literature to an audience who might not ever have been exposed to such great work before. A quick investigation of the raison d’être of this Theatre Company should ease the Christian’s mind that they are not out to get us. Indeed, we should feel the honoured, and realise how highly regarded our Scriptures are.
An understanding of those Scriptures would also inform us that we need to be careful about what we define as irreverent, another accusation aimed at the play. We can too easily see God as some Victorian age middle class prude. The Scriptures are far from that. Not only is the central message of the New Testament that God moved into our very earthy neighbourhoods but The Bible has people relieving themselves, the produce of bodily functions often mentioned, the naked female anatomy erotically described. God is not at all queasy about such stuff and really doesn’t need us protecting him from things we think he might needs his eyes closed to.
In the end I go back to putting God back in the conversations. When The Bible or Jesus is portrayed in art, it does not need to be theologically perfect to be of use. I didn’t watch the The Last Temptation of Christ movie for many years as a result of it being banned. When I did finally see it I was fascinated by the theological issues it raised and the ultimate message that Christ had to die for the hope of the world. As a Presbyterian minister, that is the message I am eager to reach the world with and if a play or a film can open up such ideas and lead people to think or converse about such Christian truth I would prefer to fund it rather than trying to have it banned! The arts have a way to open up people’s souls that theological books, Sunday sermons and Tent missions often times can’t! Indeed the artistic nature of the literature of The Bible has more in common with The Reduced Shakespeare Company than it has with a theologian or preacher.
Two final side issues. In our new multicultural society, let us not complain when Christians are censored for having a Bible verse on their work van or when Christ is taken out of Christmas and then try to censor other rights of expression! And more interestingly, The Bible; The Complete Word Of God (abridged) had not sold too many tickets before the publicity over the ban. Reinstated, it sold out! It reminded me of the story of a Dublin sex shop in the early 90s that could not get any advertising on Dublin radio or any of the press. A quick letter to a Church headquarters brought a protest outside the store and within a few days they were front page news! They got their publicity! When Jesus told his disciples that we should be wise as serpents and gentle as doves he was using the very humour that The Reduced Shakespeare Company use BUT he wasn’t joking!